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Boswell’s Drinking Ledgers

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Yes, that Boswell. I guess he wrote a good biography or something. I’ve never read Life of Johnson. Has anyone? Anyway—from Standpoint, some excerpts from his journals:

A great variety of other company was at [his home] Auchinleck. I felt the entertaining of them in general as a laborious and anxious task. I several times drank too much wine, and suffered severe distress after it. I was quite averse to writing. I was exact only in keeping my Book of Company and Liquors, in which I marked with more regularity than I supposed possible for me all the company with us at dinner in one column, and all night in another, with the different liquors drank each day in separate columns…

He understood his weakness perfectly well, having described himself in verse as a “virtuous man who is inclined to drink; | Who feels an inward suction in his breast, | A raging vortex”.

This dude really gets into it:

The levels of consumption were at times prodigious. On October 13, 1783 there were three men at dinner at Auchinleck, and between them they polished off three bottles of claret, two bottles of port, two bottles of Lisbon, three bottles of Mountain and one bottle of rum. Three days later six men sat down to dinner, but did not rise until they had emptied seven bottles of claret, two “Scotch pints” of claret (each of which was equivalent to three English pints, and thus to approximately two normal bottles), three bottles of port, one bottle of Lisbon, two bottles of Madeira, one bottle of Mountain and one bottle of rum.

You might think that, after such indulgence, a day or so of dry toast and herbal tea might be just the thing. But the following day seven men were at table, and if anything they exceeded the potations of the previous evening. They again drank seven bottles of claret, two Scotch pints of claret, and three bottles of port, before varying the conclusion of the entertainment with two bottles of Lisbon, one bottle of Madeira and no fewer than three bottles of rum. Boswell’s journal entry after this debauch says something for his stamina:

I drank a great deal of wine without feeling any bad effect…While I kept the highest pitch of jollity, I at the same time maintained the peculiar decorum of the family of Auchinleck.

Uh-huh.

On one occasion he had given a dinner for some friends to whom he had lost a bet that he would not get a dose of the clap while travelling in Europe. Overwhelmed with drink, he became confused on his way back to his lodgings, and wandered instead into “a low house in one of the alleys in Edinburgh where I knew a common girl lodged, and like a brute as I was I lay all night with her”.

The next morning he showed clear signs of the pox. Five weeks later he repeated the frolic, spending the night with “a whore worthy of Boswell, if Boswell must have a whore”.

On the Hatchet Job

Sharp, at times cringe-inducing diagnosis of the negative book review from The New Yorker a few months back. Starting with the tension arising from the powerless but high-minded creative types wringing their hands over every action of the pragmatic elite:

…during much of the fifties and sixties, literary and intellectual life was far removed from the mainstream. Miller’s dismissal of Updike’s novel had zero effect on Updike’s career. The same, one imagines, went for Albee’s play, and for a volume of Arthur Schlesinger’s essays, most of which were panned by Dwight Macdonald in that first New York Review issue. The intellectuals’ inability to affect the social currents and political trends they obsessed over was a driving force behind their negative reviewing.

Elizabeth Hardwick refers, with worldly bluntness, to this sharp sense of limitation in an essay in the inaugural New York Review: “Making a living is nothing; the great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.” A few years earlier, Harold Rosenberg had described the downtown bohemian atmosphere as “a kind of metaphysical retirement.” Saul Bellow, in his 1968 story “Mosby’s Memoirs,” contrasted the character of Hymen Lustgarten, a bumbling, ineffectual former left-wing writer, with Willis Mosby, a smooth WASP aristocrat who, by virtue of his position in society, has become a member of the political elite. For many of these writers, the imbalance between the power of their minds and their actual power was almost vertiginous.

And moving to the writer’s own reasons for letting go of Attack Mode:

“New demands for new times are the big-picture reasons I’ve lost the taste for doing negative reviews. I have smaller, personal ones, too. Having become an author of books myself, I now find that the shoe is most definitely on the other foot. I once dismissed as maudlin the protest that one shouldn’t harshly disparage a book because the author poured the deepest part of herself into it. What, I replied, has that got to do with defending civilization against bad art and sloppy thinking? Nowadays the abstractions of aesthetic and intellectual criteria matter much less to me than people’s efforts to console themselves, to free themselves, to escape from themselves, by sitting down and making something. In my present way of thinking, mortality seems a greater enemy than mediocrity. You can ignore mediocrity. But attention must be paid to the countless ways people cope with their mortality. In the large and varied scheme of things, in the face of experiences before which even the most poetic words fail and fall mute, writing even an inferior book might well be a superior way of living.”

I don’t know about that last part—pretty horrible defense if you ask me.

The Daily Rituals of Great Writers

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Banging out some Tom Ripley before breakfast.

At the Literary Review, key sentences from a review of a book aptly entitled Daily Rituals:

Food is often of little importance, mere brain fuel. Patricia Highsmith lived on vodka, cereal and bacon and eggs.

For stimulants, again and again, it’s just tea and coffee, rarely alcohol, let alone anything else. Balzac drank fifty cups of coffee a day and so did Voltaire. The latter’s doctor warned him that it was a slow poison, at which Voltaire quipped that it must be, since he’d been drinking it for seventy years. He also liked to work in bed, as did Descartes, who hated rising early. Unfortunately he took a job teaching philosophy to Queen Christina of Sweden, was commanded to be ready to start her lessons at 5am and was dead of pneumonia within weeks.

Its conclusion?

A key component of genius is sheer energy, and that requires health and self-discipline…Bohos on self-destruct might write a few exquisite fleurs du mal, but they are rare.

Frontiers in Fiction: The SF of North Korea

Cribbed from the pages of the Literary Saloon, the best site on the internet for fiction in translation, here is a look at the science fiction of North Korea.

After a speech delivered by Kim Jong-Il in October 1988 called for the development of science fiction on a larger scale, the number of sci-fi works grew significantly…

[The stories] often detail the process of theorization, research, and experimentation that is the everyday work of a scientist. The importance of cooperation is routinely stressed: showing teamwork, theoretical debates, peer-reviewing, and international or interdisciplinary collaboration as key factors of scientific innovation. Conversely: pride, individualism, and personal ambitions are often linked to the failure of scientific projects. There is no room for stock characters such as the “genius scientist:” in phase with socialist epistemology, scientific discovery is first and foremost linked to external, socio-economical factors and is considered to be the product of a process of collaboration rather the fruit of individual genius.

The full article is here.

Advanced Topics in Book Marketing: Jeffrey Eugenides Edition

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From Janet Maslin’s review of Boris Kachka’s ‘Hothouse’, the new history of  FSG:

But Mr. Kachka must raise the ante and resort to full-out cheerleading when describing the house’s current incarnation, with Jonathan Galassi in charge (“If Jonathan Galassi didn’t exist, FSG would have had to invent him”), and Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides as top writing talent. Really, it seems better not to remember that the company promoted Mr. Eugenides’s “Marriage Plot” with a Times Square billboard featuring the headline “Swoonworthy” to accompany his picture.

Am I the only one who thinks publishing needs more billboards in Times Square, and less fawning recollections of the Golden Age? Say what you want about ‘Swoon-worthy’, but those were a triumphant couple of weeks! Who couldn’t love it? His vest even spawned a twitter account!

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Orwell’s Motives for Writing

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(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

You can read the essay ‘Why I Write’ in its entirety here.

Practice, Practice, Practice?

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Erasmus by Holbein

A challenge to a ubiquitous orthodoxy, and a return to a debate pretty much endlessly fascinating to copybaras: where does creative practice fall on this spectrum? Literary and artistic history is plump with examples of the early development of prodigious talent. At the time they finished their first major novels (all in their early twenties), had Jane Austen or Truman Capote or Dave Wallace really put in anywhere near the requisite amount of hours supposedly required for expertise? Granted, sprinting and art are entirely different forms of performance. But the more important consideration that comes to mind for me is whether the characteristics of extremely high-level performers are so entirely different from one another. Maybe they’ve all ‘got it’, and the rest of us, not so much: like watching an Andy Roddick play against someone like Federer, or reading a Cheever story after Updike, you get the sense that all the practice in the world couldn’t turn them from good to Great. A sad but intuitively compelling thought.

You Can’t Teach Speed: Sprinters Falsify the Deliberate Practice Model of Expertise

Abstract: 
Most scientists agree that expertise requires both innate talent and proper training. Nevertheless, the highly influential deliberate practice model (DPM) of expertise holds that either talent does not exist, or that its contribution to performance differences is negligible. It predicts that initial performance will be unrelated to achieving expertise and that a long period of deliberate practice — at least 10 years or 10,000 hours — is necessary and sufficient for achieving expertise. We tested these predictions in the domain of sprinting. Study 1 reviewed the biographies of 15 Olympic sprint champions. Study 2 reviewed the biographies of the 20 fastest male sprinters in U.S. history. In all documented cases, sprinters were exceptional prior to or coincident with their initiation of formal training. Furthermore, most reached world class status rapidly (Study 1 median = 3 years; Study 2 median = 7.5). Study 3 surveyed U.S. national collegiate championships qualifiers in sprints and throws. Sprinters recalled being faster as youths than did throwers, whereas throwers recalled greater strength and overhand throwing ability. Sprinters’ best performances in their first season of high school, generally the onset of formal training, were consistently faster than 95-99% of their peers. Collectively, these results falsify the DPM for sprinting. Because speed is foundational for many sports, they challenge the DPM generally.

Assorted news: MFA pessimism, Robert Galbraith, etc.

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Copybaras are notoriously lazy creatures, but the gleaming world of the literati stops for no one, man or beast. While we were out:

…homogeonizing American literature, flattening out any complexities, any eccentricities into bland sameness. Across the nation, writers are developing their skills while reading the same books, attending the same structured workshops, entering the same system as all of their peers. And you can see it in the literature. If you care about literature at its extremes, if you care about experimentation and individuality, if what you value is strange and weird and inappropriate, then you will probably have responded to the literature that develops in MFA programs with disgust and disappointment. They are touching coming of age stories, complex memoir narratives about overcoming tragedy and setback with dignity, all written in the same flat prose.

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” will now have a happy ending, and its success will only perpetuate the myth that talent is ultimately rewarded with success. What Rowling’s little experiment has actually demonstrated, however, is that quality and success are even more unrelated than we found in our experiment.

…problems emerge when it’s interpreted to mean that first-grade teachers should (only?) write about being a first-grade teacher, short-story writers living in Brooklyn should write about being a short-story writer living in Brooklyn, and so forth. That notion is rightly scorned as leading to the kind of literary solipsism that, in fact, many short stories, novels, essays and memoirs exhibit. But the motto is nonetheless true. Writers who are intimately familiar with their subject produce more knowing, more confident and, as a result, stronger results…These writers grab us by the lapels at the get-go and don’t release their grip till the last period. For our part, we’re glad to be pulled along, so compelling is the way their minds engage with the material. From their example and hundreds of others, I’m inspired to anagrammatically rearrange motto No. 3 to “Write what you wonk.”

The Updike Prize

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Awarded to the person in the publishing world who has most successfully denied the change of both the financial and cultural landscape of the industry since its debaucherous, rich, white, male midcentury heyday:

May I present Luke Janklow, of Janklow and Nesbit, in The New York Times:

Luke Janklow…was trying to recall what he had been up to the last month. “I don’t go out that much,” he said, opening the calendar on his computer in his 13th-floor office overlooking Park Avenue.

He began May at the Carolina Nitsch Project Room on West 22nd Street, where he attended a Thursday-night opening for the artist Richard Dupont. A few days later, Mr. Janklow and his girlfriend, Stella Schnabel, a daughter of the artist Julian Schnabel, attended “Macbeth” to see Alan Cumming, Mr. Janklow’s client and the star of the play.

“That was a long night,” Mr. Janklow said with a shudder of what now seemed like recognition. There had been drinks in Mr. Cumming’s dressing room after the show and a dinner for eight at Carbone that lasted past 1 a.m. Three days later Mr. Janklow had lunch at Lafayette with two more clients: the members of the Beastie Boys, Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz, to discuss their biography with Spiegel & Grau, scheduled for 2015.

He also showed up at the ArtsConnection benefit at the behest of his mother, Linda, the charity’s founding chairman and a descendant of the Warner Bros. movie dynasty, before heading to Montauk, where he spent Memorial Day weekend at the cottage of Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, designers of the Boom Boom Room and the Ace Hotel.

For a man who doesn’t go out much, Mr. Janklow certainly gets around. Indeed — weaving through Manhattan traffic on a motorcycle in a pair of worn bluejeans or at the racetrack practicing his stunt driving skills — he may be the last man having fun in book publishing, an industry that has gone from late nights at Elaine’s to hand-wringing about the Kindle.

Mr. Janklow… has also acquired a reputation as something of a Casanova, mostly because of the attractive women he has courted since he was separated in 2009 from Julie Daniels, his wife at the time and a former musician.. These include Ms. Schnabel, the philanthropist and London socialite Jemima Khan, Meredith Melling Burke of Vogue — and most tantalizingly to the tabloids, the married former creative director of Domino, Sara Ruffin Costello.

Let us raise our seventh Gibson of the night to Luke, in hearty congratulations. Not since Quixote has the world known such a paradoxical hero.